Sunday, May 25, 2008

Blogging under a pseudonym

A month ago, I promised to comment on a controversy over at about pseudonymous blogging (see especially here and here). The discussions there were about pretty weighty matters of science, including posts by the wonderfully pseudonymous DrugMonkey. But I never got around to it.

Last week, as the first volleys were being fired at this corner of cyberspace in the Opacity Wars, comments on one or two of the posts expressed outrage over pseudonymous blogging/comments, for reasons that weren't quite clear to me. But the sun was shining and the fish were biting, so I didn't have time for that either.

Then, yesterday morning, I read the NYT Magazine's piece by Emily Gould, called "Blog-Post Confidential: What I gained – and lost – by revealing my intimate life on the web". There's a lot about 'oversharing' and a lot of oversharing, as the author negotiates her life on-line.

Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, that's a lot of whoopdedoo about 'virtual personalities'.

Let's clear about my own pseudonymous status: This blog exists only because it is possible to have a layer of distance from the real person or people who actually do the writing here. (Oh, have I given away too much?) It is by design emphatically not intended to be the Log, where some of the brightest and most articulate minds in language sciences have a pretty authoritative (in a good way) blogal voice. In a way, it matters who those people are while they write about stuff they actually know about. A smart person reads everything with a skeptical eye, but the Log is about as trustworthy as the web gets. Even they, though, have a pseudonymous blogger in their line-up (Melvyn Quince).

In contrast, this blog exists just to create a chance to throw out odds and ends about language, mostly intended for people with nothing beyond a passing interest in language. This blog is a kind of anti-authority and I hope there's no oversharing in any sense. (If there is, I'll hunt it down and kill it.)

Sometimes the content is just linguistic data, but it's infinitely less focused than Jim McCawley's wonderful old "Linguistic Flea Circus" (a collection of English data that resisted and often still resist good theoretical accounts), nor ideologically loaded like the 'wild facts' that George Lakoff was said to bring to class back in the day. I don't give tremendous thought to most of what I put up, and if I did, I wouldn't post a lot of it or would rework it dramatically. (Case in point: The last post about a 'garden path' sentence might not really count as garden path to a lot of people who do syntax.) I definitely wouldn't be so brainstormy if stuff had my name on it. So, a pen name is comfortable.

A lot of our posts are about the discipline of linguistics at Wisconsin, language in Wisconsin, etc. For those things, it just feels better to have it come from a blog with a lot of local people serving as contributors: It doesn't matter who gets this stuff out, but it's good to have people know about what's happening among linguists at Wisconsin and related matters. Most of it is stuff I don't know jack about, in terms of linguistic science, but it looks like fun or potentially interesting or somehow worthwhile stuff.

Besides, the person typing these lines is not really a linguist, as many of the real linguists on campus would tell you very directly if you asked them. I don't have any kind of degree in Linguistics and the couple of courses (was it even that?) I had in Linguistics as a student were far away from almost anything that ever gets mentioned here. But maybe I'll start blogging about what I know some day. In the meantime, I am a kind of anti-authority on linguistics, or maybe more of an unhinged amateur rodeo clown on acid invading the LSA Business Meeting.

And we talk some about university and academic politics, a lot of it looking snarkier than one might be if this blog wasn't under a pen name. That stuff, I think, is stuff that needs to be said, and often badly needs to be said, and the person typing these lines regularly says more forceful things on these topics in public, but I'd just as soon not have the local papers quoting me by name and title. (And, yes, local news blogs do occasionally pick up stuff from this blog.)

Sure, we raised hell for a while with Safire and other prescriptivist baboons for their willful ignorance of the subject they earn a living from. Most people who care already understand how those guys work, but it's probably useful to have a reminder. I wouldn't mind having my name on that stuff, but it doesn't outweigh the reasons for being pseudonymous, and it could become a distraction.

One of the key bits of liberty that comes with a nom de plume is that I can report what I hear "on the street" about the field. That's a little like the gawker blogs that Gould has worked for, but much more like the uber-snarky non-news on I assume enough sophistication on the part of readers to realize that this stuff really and truly is on the level of gossip — not refereed publications or conference presentations, even much more what people tell after the third beer than over a latte. This blog is to the Log as wonkette is to whatever the best newspaper in the country is.

If you find something here that has any value beyond a cheap laugh, it's yours to use (acknowledgments to Mr. Verb are welcome). But if you can't verify what you read here, I urge you not to take it too seriously. We don't. What you read here is worth what you've paid for it. At most.


Anonymous said...

So, the rumors about the Witness Protection Program aren't true?

Mr. Verb said...

I cannot comment on that.

Maybe that's much like Karl Rove apparently refusing to comment on whether he talked to the Dept of Justice about pursuing the prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman.